We’ve been in lockdown in the UK for nearly a week. I was glad when it was announced as it was the first decisive step our government has taken during the coronavirus crisis. We’re supposed to stay in our homes except for essential outings (work, food or medical) and one “exercise” walk each day. Hopefully the lockdown will reduce the spread of the coronavirus by limiting social interaction but it does require people to follow the new rules.
It has been a beautiful week for weather, mild and spring-like with bright sunshine and blue skies, the sort of weather where the air is filled with birdsong and you can almost hear the buds swelling. When I have been out on my exercise walks, I have been taking photographs when I see something that catches my eye. I thought I would post these here, partly for interest as spring arrives in the west country and partly to show how much wildlife there is about us.
The picture at the head of this post is of some Anemone blanda growing among leaf litter in the Leechwell Garden. These blue flowers are native to southeastern Europe but seem to do well here.
A large stand of flowering ivy in the early autumn sunshine is an impressive sight. The many pale green globe flower heads give off their distinctive sickly-sweet smell and insects throng to the flowers to take advantage of the sudden abundance of pollen and nectar. Movement is constant and the entire bush buzzes audibly. Among the insects gorging themselves, there may be red admiral butterflies, plump stripy bumblebees, also good numbers of honeybees and wasps. Sometimes, especially near the sea in the south of the UK, these are outnumbered by beautiful honeybee-sized insects with a distinctive yellow and black banded abdomen and russet coloured thorax. These are ivy bees, the last of our solitary bees to emerge and it’s a delight to watch them each year in September and October.
Ivy bees are relative newcomers to the UK having arrived from mainland Europe eighteen years ago. Since then, they have prospered, spreading across the entire southern half of England and northwards as far as Cumbria As their name suggests, the species prefers pollen and nectar collected from flowering ivy and part of their success must reflect the large amounts of this climber that grow around the UK.
Each year I look out for the ivy bees; for me they signify the changing season, the movement of the year. September 2019 began very mild and dry where I live but, by the fourth week, temperatures dipped and intermittent wet and sometimes very wet weather set in and stayed with us during October and into November. In spite of the weather, I saw ivy bees in several places and here are some highlights of my 2019 observations:
A grassy bank in Sussex
In late September we spent a few days holiday in Sussex, a county in the south east of the UK. We had delivered our daughter to the University of Sussex to begin her degree and were keen to do some country walking. The weather was less than cooperative but on the 25th, our last day, we decided to walk up to the massive iron age hill fort at Cissbury Ring, high on the South Downs. We parked in the village of Findon not far from the 15th century pub, the Gun Inn, and as we passed the traditional butcher’s shop the butcher himself was standing outside wearing his blue and white striped apron.
We left the car and walked up through the village past some private houses where my attention was taken by movement in a grassy bank alongside one of the driveways. I was delighted to realise that this was a large colony of ivy bees. I hope the owner of the house is equally delighted, and I hope they know these are not wasps. Many male ivy bees were dancing about just above the surface of the grassy bank waiting for females to emerge. They occasionally coalesced into a mating cluster when a newly emerged female appeared and after a short time the cluster dissolved and the female and her chosen suitor were left alone. The incessant movement of the colony even on a dull day was very impressive. Here are two short videos which capture this movement.
We left the ivy bees and continued uphill to reach Cissbury Ring. Today this was an elemental place: clouds scudded about driven by the strong blustery wind that was now also peppering us with raindrops and, when the clouds parted, the sun broke through leaving transient pools of light on the surrounding countryside. We kept to the eastern rampart to afford protection from the wind and from the highest point we saw the sea to the south and a second hill fort, Chanctonbury Ring to the north across rolling tea-coloured fields. A few hardy bees were braving the conditions to take advantage of the scattering of wild flowers across the chalk hillside.
On our way back down the hill we passed banks of ivy in flower where, despite the intermittent drizzle, ivy bees were collecting nectar and pollen to take back to their nests.
Heath potter wasps, no – ivy bees, yes
Bovey Heathfield is a nature reserve, about half an hour’s drive from where I live with several claims to fame. It is a surviving scrap of lowland heath, a fragment of the large area of heathland that once covered this part of Devon. Even though it is small, the heath provides a unique environment with unique wildlife and in August and September it bursts into life as the heather blooms covering the land with a pinkish purple sheen. It’s also the site of one of the more important battles of the English Civil War, The Battle of Bovey Heath 1646 and on the reserve, there are memorials to the conflict.
I went to Bovey Heathfield on a windy Saturday afternoon (September 28th) under partly cloudy skies to meet John Walters, a local naturalist and wildlife expert. John knows more than anyone else about a species of solitary wasp that frequents sandy heaths. This is the heath potter wasp and the plan was for John to show me these insects. Unfortunately, the weather was not sunny enough to tempt the wasps out but he did show me one of the pots constructed from muddy clay by mated females that give them their name. They attach these pots to stalks of heather and gorse and then lay their eggs in the pot, equipping it with caterpillars as food before sealing. These are mini-marvels of engineering and John has some wonderful video showing the wasps constructing clay pots (see here).
In the absence of these insects, John showed me the large colony of ivy bees that has built nests in the south facing sandy paths on the heath. The ivy bees were not deterred by the cool conditions; the males were very active and a number of newly emerged females were mobbed by them. I saw one mating cluster develop around a female resting on a heather stalk and wondered how they all clung on.
Ivy bees in a local cemetery
The river Dart drives a picturesque, watery wedge through the town of Totnes dividing it into two unequal parts. The eastern part, across the river, goes by the name of Bridgetown, a mixture of old and mostly new houses. Buried in the old part, behind the early nineteenth century St John’s Church is the cemetery. I rather like the cemetery, it is slightly unkempt with rough grass, trees, flowers and several large clumps of ivy. Most of the graves date from the 19th and 20th centuries and the place has a peaceful calm atmosphere. Last year I found ivy bees here for the first time, it was also the first time I had seen the species in Totnes. This year the ivy in the cemetery was late in flowering but finally on the last day of September some ivy bees appeared on a few of the open flowers. I saw males and pollen-carrying females, but not many of either gender. I wondered if they might be nesting in the cemetery but was unable to find any evidence. Somewhere nearby there must a nest aggregation.
As I was poking about looking for ivy bee nests, one grave stone, for Edwin Jordain, caught my attention. It was late Victorian, dating from 1893 and had fine carvings of flowers along the top edge unlike most of the other graves. I wondered whether the flowers were symbolic or just decorative and did a little research.
The flowers on the left side are most likely blue passion flowers. I learnt that these were very popular adornments to Victorian graves, representing the suffering of Christ. I feel less comfortable about my identification of the flowers on the right but I think they are lilies, linked with purity and innocence by the Victorians, especially after death. Many of the flowers depicted are open, apparently symbolising the prime of life; Mr Jordain was only 36 when he died. His epitaph perhaps sums this up: “Brief life is here our portion”.
Towards the end of July, I visited the Maer, a nature reserve situated at the eastern end of the promenade in Exmouth, a seaside town in the south west of the UK. With its sand dunes and sandy grassland, the Maer is a remnant of a much larger dune system that once stretched down to the beach. Nowadays, it provides an oasis of calm close to the busy sea front as well as a habitat for special plants and insects.
A slight mist softened the long views as I walked eastwards along Exmouth sea front. Some warmth penetrated the cloud and a few people were already enjoying the beach on this late summer morning. The sandy tip of Dawlish Warren lay tantalisingly close across the water and further on, the Ness at Shaldon lurked in the mist like a gigantic wedge of cheese. The commercial area with its big wheel, pubs and cafes was busy but eventually I reached a quieter part where sand and scrub tumbled downwards at the side of the beach road. This is the edge of the Maer, a local nature reserve and one of Exmouth’s hidden gems. Superficially, the Maer is a large grassy, sandy space sandwiched between the beach road and Exmouth Cricket Club but it conceals a mosaic of different environments with unusual flora and fauna.
A substantial sandy dune ridge forms the southern border of the Maer giving views across the reserve on one side and towards the beach on the other. Marram grass grows thickly giving the sand stability but there are also areas of bare sand and areas of scrub, reminders of the dune system that must have occupied this area before the beach road was built. Restharrow with its pink and white pea-type flowers and a few residual yellow evening primrose provided some colour but it was the sea holly that surprised. This is an unusual and unexpected plant that grows extensively along the first part of the ridge. Its spiky greenish-grey leaves with white margins and veins and its powder blue flowers light up the sand as though someone had spilt pale paint. Sea holly flourishes in these arid conditions by having leaves covered in a waxy cuticle to help retain water and through its deep roots. Although sea holly has some visual resemblance to our Christmas greenery, it is a relative of the carrot; in the past it was employed as an aphrodisiac.
Several large insects with bold black and yellow markings crawled about the bright blue sea holly flowers collecting nectar. These are beewolves, some of our most spectacular solitary wasps, that nest in sandy places and specialise in catching honeybees. Both male and female beewolves were feeding that day but it is the larger female (up to about 2cm long) that catches and paralyses honeybees and may be seen flying back to the nest carrying a quiescent honeybee beneath her. She digs a nest tunnel in sandy soil up to a metre long with multiple terminal branches where she lays eggs and provides honeybees as food for the developing larvae. These once rare insects have expanded their UK range since the 1980s, possibly in response to climate change and I saw them in several places on the reserve notably on a stand of mauve thistles. They are not aggressive towards humans.
Further along the ridge, before it is colonised by brambles, scrub and low trees, I found a large clump of an unruly scrambling plant covered in pea-type flowers of an impressive reddish-pink colour. This is broad-leaved everlasting pea, a perennial relative of our annual sweet pea, growing through the grasses on the Maer ridge holding on via thin tendrils. A chunky dark bee was feeding from the flowers, apparently undeterred by their jerky movements in the breeze. This was a leafcutter bee, most likely the Coast Leafcutter Bee that favours sandy habitats near the sea. They nest in burrows in vegetated sand lined with pieces of leaf cut from trees and plants. Later, when the sun came out, I saw several of these bees chasing one another around the bright pink flowers like children in a playground.
The large central part of the reserve was coated with golden brown grass criss-crossed with paths for walkers and looking very dry, a reflection of the recent lack of rain. Within the grass were mats of restharrow and many of the yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear. One area resembled a lunar landscape with many small craters where the surface had been dug out exposing the sand. Solitary wasps and small leafcutter bees had happily nested here.
Tall clumps of ragwort with bright yellow daisy-like flowers and deeply lobed green leaves were dotted around the central area. This plant provides valuable habitat and food for invertebrates and I found one clump that had been appropriated by black caterpillars with prominent yellow bands. They were moving about, eating the leaves of the ragwort, voraciously consuming the greenery and destroying the upper parts of the plant. These are caterpillars of the cinnabar moth and as they feed, they assimilate some of the toxic alkaloids contained in ragwort, rendering themselves unpalatable to birds and other predators. It is said that their yellow stripes act as a warning to birds. Once fed and mature, the caterpillars dig themselves into the ground to spend 12 months or so as pupae before emerging as beautiful day-flying red and black moths. The adult moths live for a few weeks, feeding on nectar before mating and laying eggs on the ragwort leaves. The eggs grow into caterpillars and the cycle starts all over again. The cinnabar moth is entirely dependent on ragwort for its survival.
Towards the western end of the reserve, I found a large colony of flowering plants, perhaps suggesting damper conditions. Clumps of common mallow up to a metre tall dominated with their trumpet flowers composed of five deep pink petals each with purple stripes. At the centre of each flower was a mass of grey pollen-covered stamens emanating from a single stalk like a miniature bunch of flowers. Near the mallow, large areas were covered by a sprawling, scrambling plant richly covered with pea-like flowers above many small, spear-shaped, mid green leaves. Flower colours varied from very pale to light blue, mauve and deep purple with some plants having several of these colour variants. One plant even had bright yellow flowers. This is Sand Lucerne, a fertile hybrid of lucerne and sickle medic, naturalised in East Anglia, where its two parents grow together, but now transplanted elsewhere.
There’s so much to see at the Maer and I could easily have spent several more hours looking about. But I had a train to catch so I headed back along the promenade and across the town towards the station.
The Cirl Bunting is an attractive songbird once found throughout the southern half of the UK. Its numbers declined precipitously in the second half of the 20th century following changes in farming practice and, by the late 1980s, it was confined to coastal farmland in south Devon and might have become nationally extinct. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recognised the problem and worked with farmers to support the bird resulting in a dramatic increase in its numbers. In a recent expansion of its range the bird has established itself in East Devon at Stantyway Farm near Otterton having been absent for more than 30 years. I wanted to find out more so I went to Stantyway to see for myself.
The Cirl Bunting was first reported in the UK by Montagu in the winter of 1800 near Kingsbridge in south Devon in the west of the country. It is roughly sparrow-sized and the male, in particular, is very distinctive with its black and yellow striped head and olive-green breast band. The bird gradually spread across the southern half of the UK, its numbers peaking in the early years of the 20th century. Since then it has declined and by the late 1980s only 118 pairs remained, confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.
With the Cirl Bunting facing national extinction, the RSPB identified changes in farming practice linked to agricultural intensification as responsible for the precipitous decline. In the winter, the bird forages for insects and spilt grain in weedy stubble fields. In the summer, it nests in hedges or scrub and forages on unimproved grassland rich in invertebrates with grasshoppers being important food for chicks. With agricultural intensification, there was a shift from spring-sown cereals to autumn sowing so that far fewer arable fields were left as winter stubble; grubbing out of hedges took away nest sites and loss of the hay meadows and increased use of pesticides reduced invertebrate numbers and summer food for the bird.
Once the cause of the decline had been identified, the RSPB worked with farmers in south Devon to support the birds by reinstating some traditional agricultural practices, supported by government agrienvironment schemes. The effect was spectacular and by 2016, numbers of Cirl Buntings had increased to over 1000 pairs. Most of the increase occurred in the bird’s core range but there was some spread along the coast and inland where habitat was suitable. This was a major conservation success, also benefitting other species.
The bird has a reputation for being sedentary and it had been assumed that the estuary of the river Exe would be a barrier to further eastwards expansion of its range. So, it was a surprise when, around the end of 2010, a single Cirl Bunting was seen at Stantyway Farm near Otterton in East Devon followed by several more sightings early in 2011. Since then, the numbers at Stantyway have increased suggesting that the local conditions suit the birds and from 2015 it was clear that a breeding population existed.
Stantyway Farm is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and when the tenant, Mr Williams, retired in 2014, the farm was taken back into Clinton’s own Farm Partnership. Clinton Devon Estates were keen to support Cirl Buntings and other species on their arable farm at Stantyway so they took advice from the RSPB and applied for agrienvironment support. This was awarded in 2016 and supports planting hedges to provide more nest sites, leaving wildlife margins around fields to provide invertebrates as summer food, and planting spring cereal crops that are harvested in the autumn leaving weedy winter stubbles with seed as food. These are all activities shown to be critical in supporting these birds in south Devon. The farm was also put into organic conversion in 2016; organic farming by its nature supports wildlife and increases invertebrates. Cirl Bunting numbers at Stantyway gradually increased across this time.
In 2017, Clinton Estates advertised for a new tenant farmer at Stantyway and Sam Walker was appointed. Although the farm is still mainly arable, Sam keeps 52 cows whose calves are raised and sold on to beef finishers. About a third of the land is now devoted to grass for silage production for winter animal feed. Sam has, however, embraced the existing philosophy of the farm in supporting wildlife: he has maintained the organic status and intends to apply for further agrienvironment support when the current scheme runs out in 2021.
I wanted to see the farm for myself so, on a mild early April day, I went to Stantyway. I left the car on the rough ground across from Stantyway Farmhouse and stood for a few moments enjoying the sunshine. The air was filled with the endlessly inventive song of the skylark and occasionally a buzzard mewed as it circled lazily overhead. Sometimes a low buzz cut through all of this and when I looked, I realised this was from all the insects about.
I walked away from the farm along the gentle downhill slope of Stantyway Road with views developing over rolling East Devon countryside on one side and to the hazy mid-blue sea on the other. The lane descended between wide grassy verges backed by luxuriant hedges. Spring flowers grew through the thick grass including stitchwort, celandine, dandelions, violets and white dead nettle. The dominant flowering plant was, however, alexanders, with its fleshy green stems, copious shiny dark green foliage and pale mop head flowers. This was proving very popular with many kinds of fly and a selection of solitary mining bees, some collecting large lumps of white pollen on their back legs.
My walk included a long section of the coast path skirting the edge of Stantyway fields. Thick scrubby hedges, mainly flowering blackthorn, lined the cliff edge along with more alexanders. The occasional hedge break afforded spectacular views along the red cliffs of the Jurassic Coast towards Ladram bay with its crumbling stacks, past the white elegance of Sidmouth and finishing in the chalk of Beer Head (see picture at the top). Again, there were many solitary mining bees taking advantage of the flowers. I did not see any Cirl Buntings on my walk but, on two occasions I heard their distinctive, rattling, metallic trill telling me the birds were about.
It’s a beautiful place made all the better by glorious early April weather and I was surprised to see so many insects along the paths. Perhaps this reflects the methods used at Stantyway, showing that productive farming and wildlife can coexist and prosper. Around the farm, each field gate has an information board giving the crop and some other useful information. An Honesty Café has been installed near the farmhouse providing continuous hot water for tea or coffee and homemade cakes that I can strongly recommend. All of this suggests an outward looking, open approach to farming. When I met Sam Walker, the farmer, he explained that, in addition to the provisions of the agrienvironment scheme, he has put skylark plots in cereal fields, created wild bird seed corridors and put up swift boxes to support wildlife. I came away feeling that at Stantyway, Cirl Buntings were getting the best support they could. His methods have already benefitted other farmland birds with numbers of skylarks and reed buntings doubling over the past year and in a further twist to the Cirl Bunting story, some of the birds have now been seen to the east of Sidmouth.
I should like to thank Sam Walker, Doug and Joan Cullen, Kate Ponting and David White for generous help in preparing this article which appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.
Last summer, on one of the hottest days of the year, I joined a walk led by Nick Gray of the Dorset Wildlife Trust through some traditionally managed meadows in Dorset’s Marshwood Vale. We found fields filled with lush grasses, colourful wild flowers and a profusion of insects. This outpouring of joyous, exuberant growth seemed to embody the essence of high summer and the walk turned out to be one of my wildlife highlights of 2018.
We started from Babers Farm below the village of Marshwood and, after a short walk across several fields clad only in a veneer of golden stubble, we crossed a field boundary to enter another world. Here a thick carpet of knee-high grasses dominated the sward, still green despite the long spell of hot weather. Richly coloured flowers were woven into the grassy fabric and many small brown butterflies danced among the seed heads. A transient flash of orange was probably a silver-washed fritillary butterfly. Grasshoppers leapt from the grass in broad arcs as we walked and brightly coloured insects fed from the flowers. As I looked up at the bowl of hills surrounding the Vale, a kestrel, pale brown in this brash light, swept silently across the field. It was the perfect summer moment.
Perhaps it was a reaction to all the doom and gloom I had been hearing about our treatment of the environment and the resulting loss of wildlife? Perhaps it was a deeply buried childhood memory of family picnics among flowers on Dorset hills? Perhaps it was simply all the natural beauty around me? Whatever the reason, it felt, for a few moments, as though this was the only place in the world I wanted to be.
These meadows are managed under a higher-level stewardship scheme which pays for the loss of income incurred through traditional, less intensive land cultivation. The meadow flowers and grasses grow during the warmth and wet of spring and summer and hay is cut and removed in mid-July when flowers have mostly set seed. The aftermath growth is grazed by animals in the autumn after which the land is left until the following spring. It was the last day of June when we visited and high summer sees these meadows liberally studded with the flattened white umbels of corky-fruited water dropwort, a member of the carrot family and a Dorset speciality but rare elsewhere. The flowers were very popular with insects, especially hoverflies which buzzed loudly in small groups while hovering by the flowers in a courtship display. A female would sit on a flower head while a male hovered above her; sometimes another male would hover above the first in a “stack”.
The bright yellow slipper-like flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were also very common in the meadows, sometimes growing so prolifically that the flowers merged into drifts of sunny colour. This is such a common flower that we tend to overlook it but perhaps its very familiarity leads to the many popular names attached to the plant such as eggs and bacon, hen and chickens or granny’s toenails. Nick also told us that the plant may have useful anti-worming properties if consumed by sheep.
Dotted around the meadows, sometimes in large clumps, were the unruly purple flowers of knapweed. These are popular with nectaring insects and I saw a colourful burnet moth and several marbled white butterflies. Knapweed is also one of the plants with the popular name of Bachelor’s Buttons and Nick told us how, in the past, young women played a love-divination game with the flower heads. A young woman wanting to know if her affections would be returned took a knapweed flower head and plucked off the open florets. She placed the flower head inside her blouse and if, after an hour, new florets had opened, then her love would be reciprocated.
Here is the story told by John Clare in his poem “May” from the Shepherd’s Calendar:
They pull the little blossom threads
From out the knapweeds button heads
And put the husk wi many a smile
In their white bosoms for awhile
Who if they guess aright the swain
That loves sweet fancys trys to gain
Tis said that ere its lain an hour
Twill blossom wi a second flower
And from her white breasts hankerchief
Bloom as they ne’er had lost a leaf
A short walk across open countryside took us southwards towards the centre of the Vale, where we found another large traditionally managed meadow. As before, a rich mixture of thick grasses and colourful flowers dominated but I was surprised to find drifts of yellow rattle and a few orchids, looking rather the worse for wear. I began to realise that each meadow has its own character, its own flora, its own colours reflecting the underlying geology and dampness.
Several recent studies have highlighted the decline of insect and bird life in the UK. Factors contributing to this decline include climate change, habitat loss, pollution and pesticide use. For example, the 97% loss of flower-rich hay meadows in the UK during the 20th century linked to agricultural intensification must have seriously affected insect populations as well as birds dependent on insects for food. Some have gone so far as to suggest that unless we modify farming methods, we shall face “Insect Armageddon”. This needs to be taken seriously owing to the important role insects play in, for example, maintaining soil health, digesting waste and pollinating our fruit and flowers.
The meadows that I visited last summer in the Marshwood Vale send a positive message showing that, with careful management, these important habitats can be restored to their former glory, supporting insects and providing food for birds. In more good news, the Magical Marshwood Vale Project (funded by National Grid and coordinated by Dorset AONB and Dorset Wildlife Trust) started in 2018 with the aim of enhancing traditional landscape features and helping to reinstate ecologically important wildlife habitats. This includes the restoration of more wildflower meadows.
I should like to thank Nick Gray for his advice and enthusiasm.
I walk through our local community garden (The Leechwell Garden) most days in summer just to have a look at the flowers and insects but I know that, if I am there late morning, the sound of children playing will brighten the air. The older children, sometimes along with mum or dad reliving their youth, will be enjoying the fine new play area with its exciting slide. The younger ones may be messing about on the watery edge of the stream that passes through the garden but it is the sand pit that really hits the spot. Children love playing in the sand and I often see several family groups clustered about the sand pit; the only thing that seems to deter the children is heavy rain. It’s a real tribute to the vision of the garden committee that they created something so popular.
The flowers I come to see are across the other side of the garden and, for the past few weeks, I have been loitering near the old stone wall where there’s a large patch of the plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina). It covers the ground with a jumble of silvery-green, velvety leaves and sends up stout, silvery stems bearing clutches of smaller leaves and understated pink-purple flowers. It’s a pleasant, restful sort of plant creating an old-style, cottage garden feeling but what goes on around these Lamb’s Ears in midsummer is far from restful.
From the middle of June, a dark, chunky bee can be seen patrolling the patch of silvery-green leaves and I spend more time than I should watching him. Whereas most bees are gentle creatures keeping themselves to themselves, this one is a bit of a thug, oozing anger and aggression. He is the male wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), mostly black but with yellow markings along the sides of his abdomen, head and legs, reminiscent of the warpaint worn by native American tribes. He is about the same length as a honeybee but much broader making him quite imposing as he moves quickly about the patch of Lamb’s Ear. His movement is distinctive, he hovers then moves rapidly to a new spot, hovers, moves, all the time buzzing noisily. It feels like he is looking for something. And that’s exactly what he is doing, looking. Should he spot another male wool-carder bee or a different insect on his patch, he will chase it away by flying directly at it. I have seen him attack a bumblebee at least twice his size and knock it to the ground. But, not only is he aggressive, he is armed; the rear of his abdomen sports five stout spines which he will use to injure or kill the intruding insects and there are reports of male wool-carder bees disabling honeybees who dared to feed from their patch.
All this aggressive energy is directed towards protecting the patch of Lamb’s Ear for himself and his harem, for now and then a female wool-carder bee will appear. She looks very like the male, only a bit smaller; the wool-carder bee is one of the only species in this country where the male bee is larger than the female. When the male sees her feeding from the flowers he will pounce and, without any preliminaries, mating will ensue. This is a vigorous but brief activity sometimes causing the flower stem to vibrate before the two disengage and go about their business again. Unlike most solitary bees, where females mate once, wool-carder females undergo multiple matings so that, after a short time, our male will mate with the same female again and should a different female appear he will attempt to mate with her. One valiant observer went to the trouble of watching an individual male wool-carder in his garden and reported that the bee mated sixteen times in one day.
This focus on the aggressive behaviour of the male wool-carder bee tends to obscure the fact that it is the female that does all the hard work of nest building and egg laying. The wool-carder bee is a solitary species so that individual mated females build their nests alone, unlike the more familiar social honeybees and bumblebees. Nesting occurs in preformed aerial cavities in dead wood, in walls or in hollow stems, including the tubes found in bee hotels. Once she has identified a suitable site, the female strips or “cards” woolly fibrous material from plant leaves with her mandibles (hence the name wool-carder) and takes it back to her nest to line and plug the cavity (see the pictures below). Lamb’s Ear leaves are a popular choice for “carding” but Great Mullein or Yarrow can also be used. If you look carefully at the leaves of these plants you can sometimes see bare areas where she has been actively collecting fibres. Within the nest, she lays eggs and equips them with a mixture of nectar and pollen. The eggs develop in the nest where they stay until new bees emerge next summer and the whole cycle begins again.
So, if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear in your garden take a look, there’s a good chance that wool-carder bees will be using it and you too can be enthralled by their antics.
It’s been a good summer. We’ve had some fine weather and I’ve been able to spend time on a beautiful part of the south Devon coast looking for the long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis). It’s one of my favourite insects and one of our rarest bees and there is a strong colony on the coast between Prawle Point and Start Point where low, soft-rock cliffs meander around headlands, in and out of rocky coves and along seaweed-covered beaches. I visited this area several times between May and July but my most interesting day was on June 23rd, just after the summer solstice.
It was breezy and warm but partly cloudy when I arrived at the coast. The sea was a uniform grey-blue although now and then the sun broke through the cloud, creating shimmering areas of white water. I started by following the coast path eastwards along the cliff top from Prawle Point. The sea-side of the path was fringed with scrub and rough grass along the cliff edge whereas the landward side was fenced and mostly used for arable farming. Many kinds of wild flower grew along both sides of the path including a few generous clumps of purple tufted vetch scrambling through the scrub. After about a mile of easy walking, the enclosed path reached a gate giving on to a broad, open area, not farmed for some years, as far as I know.
I was completely unprepared for the view that greeted me after I closed the gate. Here was a meadow where thousands of the small, dandelion-like flowers of cat’s ear moved with the breezes to create a mobile yellow canopy above the grass. Lower down were many tiny yellow globes of hop trefoil and bright pink semi-circles of common vetch. This is a paradise for insects and I saw many red-tailed bumblebee workers moving purposefully about the chrome-yellow flower heads.
But that wasn’t all: the area along the cliff edge was a kaleidoscope of purples, yellows and pinks, mostly flowering legumes such as bush, kidney and tufted vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and meadow vetchling, restharrow and narrow-leaved everlasting pea. The number and variety of flowers was greater than I can remember from previous years, perhaps the warm spring had suited the legumes.
The range of flowers, especially the legumes is ideal for the long-horned bee. I had seen one or two males back along the enclosed path and now I saw several more, also nectaring on the curving, purple, tubular florets of tufted vetch. There is something other-worldly, almost primeval about these insects with their yellow mask-like face, orange-chestnut hair (in fresh insects) and their impressively long antennae, resembling stiff black bootlaces and about the same length as rest of their bodies. They are particularly striking in flight, antennae held so that the bee can negotiate whatever obstacle it meets; controlling those antennae must involve some impressive micro-engineering. There were also females about feeding on lemon yellow pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling. Chunkier than the males, they have shorter antennae and, on their back legs, generous pollen brushes resembling golden harem pants.
I scrambled down a rough track to the main Eucera nest area, a section of reddish, soft-rock cliff, pock-marked with hundreds of pencil-sized holes. Behind me the sea soughed rhythmically on nearby rocks and an oystercatcher sang its plangent song. Female Eucera arrived at the nest site bringing pollen and nectar to provision their nests but they were not alone and I saw several other bee species that seemed to be using the nest area.
One species I had hoped to see was the very rare Nomada, and I had nearly given up hope when the bee suddenly appeared; I was so surprised, I nearly fell backwards off the rocks. Like others of its kind, it is wasp-like, with a yellow and black-banded abdomen and orange legs and antennae. It was the pattern of the bands, six yellow bands on a black body that told me that this was Nomada sexfasciata, the six-banded nomad bee, one of Britain’s rarest bees. This site on the south Devon coast is the only place where it is found in the UK; it is nationally endangered so it was very exciting to see it.
It moved about the nest area furtively as if trying not to be noticed and after looking in to a few of the holes it moved on. Later that day I had more sightings of the Nomada; whether it was the same bee or several I cannot say. As a nomad, the bee has no nest of its own but lays its eggs in the nest of another bee, in this case the long-horned bee. The Nomada eggs develop into larvae and take over the nest, killing the host larvae and eating their pollen store. It depends for its survival on a strong Eucera colony and this one in south Devon is one of the largest in the UK.
Long-horned bees and their Nomada used to be found widely across the southern part of Britain in the early 20th century. They favour a range of habitats such as coastal soft rock cliffs, hay meadows and woodland rides for nest sites and require unimproved flowery grassland for feeding, being especially dependent on flowering legumes for their pollen sources. With agricultural intensification leading to a loss of habitat, especially flowers, these bees have been squeezed out and are now confined to a very few sites.
It’s not difficult to see how they could be supported. At the south Devon site, all that is required is to ensure a consistent source of flowering legumes along the coast, the soft rock cliffs already provide the nest sites. I recently met Catherine Mitson who is working with Buglife on a project to support the south Devon colony of Eucera longicornis and Nomada sexfasciata by increasing the number of flowers. Catherine is very enthusiastic and I have great hopes now for the survival of both the long-horned bee and its nomad.
The featured image at the top of this post is a male long-horned bee on bird’s foot trefoil (May 23rd 2017)